It is quiet here these days. Deep cold and unseasonal winds have crested and subsided in several waves. One of the main work events of this winter – a week-long course with students and professors from a university in Ontario and a high school in Yellowknife – is now behind us. Lately a round of minor back pain, exacerbated by some long days of solo caribou-survey flying in the Husky’s cozy (not to say cramped) cockpit, have limited my logging and wood-hauling. It is interesting to enter these periods of life when not much seems to be going on, because when you do slow down you realize there is always plenty going on.
A few days ago it was just a chickadee, fluttering in the branches of a birch tree. I was standing inside the warm workshop, looking out, and then I was staring, and then I was astounded. I picked up a note-pad and jotted:
I am perhaps too easily astounded.
Today it was just this chickadee,
Fluttering and feeding in the low branches of a white birch
Ten feet outside the window,
AT MINUS FORTY FOUR!
(Is anyone going to try to convince me
That this tiny warm bird, alive and aloft in that dense cold air,
Is not a fact almost beyond comprehension?
If so, good luck.)
I then learned, with a little checking, that the body temperature inside a chickadee is somewhere around 42 degrees Celsius. (A note for the benefit of readers residing in one of the three or four remaining countries – the U.S., the Cayman lslands, Belize – still clinging to Dr. Fahrenheit’s temperature scale: 42 degrees C. is equal to 108 degrees F. And minus 44⁰ C. is -47⁰ F. Got it? Now re-read that.)
I also read that a chickadee can, on a cold winter night, enter a state of “torpor” and drop its body temperature down to around 30 degrees Celsius, or 86 degrees F. About the temperature of an April afternoon in Palm Springs, or of an overheated living room.
Later that day, when the afternoon temperature had risen to a balmy -36 or so, we hooked up a pair of sleds to a string of fourteen dogs, launched in a long arc out of the dog yard onto the ice of the bay, and headed west. My companion Mike had never yet seen a muskox (“they’re my unicorn,” he chuckled), and I thought we might get lucky. We did. High in a rocky saddle seven miles down the coast, a loose phalanx of black beasts stood and circled for defense. We stopped the team and pointed. Then I let the dogs carry us on to the west, out of sight of them, before turning in toward shore. We found a deep cove where the snow along the brushy shoreline was trampled with recent tracks of the herd.
I have learned in the years since muskox drifted into our neighborhood that they eat pretty much everything. (Although I have not yet seen them eat spruce or tamarack.) Anything that has leaves or blades or tendrils or foliose flakes seems to be fair game for them, from rock tripe to birch branches to ridgetop grass to pondside muck and sedges. No wonder they survive and thrive here – long live the not-fussy eater! The twig-browsing moose and the lichen-loving caribou are downright finicky by comparison.
As soon as we were stopped, Mike headed off up the hill on foot. Gimped up as I was, I was happy to stay and wait with the dogs. I curled up right on the snow alongside Rugen, who has a bad habit of chewing his harness at rest stops. With my enormous parka on, and mukluks and mitts and bomber hat, I was warm and happy and even dozed off for a few minutes. The dogs took my cue and quietly settled in. It reminded me of a trailside rest on the Iditarod, minus the pressure and exhaustion of racing.
Sprawled there on the snow in my layers upon layers of insulation, my 200 pounds of flesh and bone all comfortably warm, my thoughts ran to that chickadee, and, by comparison, to those muskox. Musk-ox at these temperatures, I get. A muskox is built like a chest freezer draped in the thickest coat of fur anywhere on the planet; even the tops of its hooves are covered in thick brown fur. At 40 or 50 or 60 below, at home clear up to the north tip of Ellesmere Island and Greenland, they are set up for survival. A person can understand how they might make it. Likewise caribou, and arctic wolves. Even moose, okay. On down to arctic fox or a puffy ptarmigan — small as they are, with such a layer of fur or feathers, they are still believable. And of course, again and again I have seen my huskies leap up in pre-dawn twilight from their beds in the snow, at fully 50 below zero, and wag their tails and bark as if to say – hey, what’s up man? When are we heading out? They too astound me, but if they are devouring plenty of rich food once or twice a day, they seem to have almost no limit to staying warm and happy.
But a chickadee? I held one in my hand once – I think the cat had killed it, or it had hit a window, or both. What did it weigh? Absolutely nothing. If I closed my eyes, I’d have been hard pressed to say which of my hands held the bird. To realize that a few millimeters down inside such a mere puff of feather and hollow bone a tiny heart was beating, and rivulets of hot red blood were flowing, all at a temperature 86 degrees Celsius, or 155 degrees F., warmer than the outside air… well, yet again, I give up.
In North of Reliance, touching on a theme I have returned to often, I wrote that the Far North is “more a place of physics than biology.” I still hold to that view, and on any given day I am at least as enchanted, if not more enchanted, by the physics here as by the biology. Wind, ice, rock, sky, distance, speed, acceleration. As a pilot, even one whose main meal ticket lately has been flying for biologists, a keen interest in simple physics comes in handy. In winter, a fascination with thermodynamics and ice and sky serve a person well for obvious reasons, but also because the biology can be so scarce.
Physics and biology intersect, in a +42 chickadee flitting around at -44. The result is amazement.
I try to think of an analogy to this hot little bird in this cold enormous space, and I wind up back in physics, or astrophysics. I imagine the plummet of a meteorite into the first few air molecules of the upper stratosphere, where the friction at such speed turns it instantly white-hot. An amazing contrast of incredible heat and incredible cold easily outdone, I think, by this tiny bundle of chickadee. Outdone, because the meteorite just burns up and vaporizes within a second or three, while that little bird out the window may very well see spring, lay eggs, and fly past to amaze me all over again, some warm afternoon three months from now.
Mike came back down the hill from his walk; today the muskox were still mostly unicorns, as they had ambled out of sight before he could get a closer look, but at least he had now seen them. We hooked up harness toggles and the dogs swung back out onto the lake, loping east into a light breeze, toward snug doghouses and bowls of warm dinner.
“This curious world we inhabit is more wonderful than convenient; more beautiful than it is useful; it is more to be admired and enjoyed than used.” ― Thoreau